By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
Back in 2007 when I launched a radio talk show, I predicted that I wouldn’t get major media coverage until there was a problem. After I got fired from the show in a dispute with management, I was proven correct. I got a long article published in the Washington Post, several national media invitations, mentioned in a book about conspiracy theories, and later became a regular commentator on a National Public Radio show.
While it might have seemed great to get that attention, I didn’t enjoy being known for getting fired from a talk show. Friends who remembered my prediction thought it was amazing that I had guessed in advance what would happen, but like a broken clock, I make that kind of prediction all of the time. Do something to slightly improve the world, and a reporter may stumble upon you every once in a while. Get caught in a scandal or crime, and you can have reporters surrounding your home, taking photos as you walk from your front door to check the mail or do sit-ups in your garage. Whether you are the shooter or the target, a reporter will want to talk to you.
I have been engaged in activism on North Korean issues for a few years. At the beginning, I predicted that I wouldn’t get major news coverage until I got caught up in a scandal. No scandals yet, although I have had some reporters snooping around when they thought some of my colleagues had done something wrong.
Every time a reporter stumbles upon my activities helping North Korean refugees, I thank them. Certainly there were scandals, murders, earthquakes, K-pop and other stories that would have generated more clicks. Then I pretty much say goodbye, recognizing that they will never write about my activities again.
It might be a cynical point of view, but in order to understand reporters, think about a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat at a birthday party for kids. Imagine the magician demonstrating to the kids how he did it. Then imagine the magician asking the kids, “Do you want me to pull the rabbit out of the hat again?” The kids, like reporters, want to see something different, something “new.” That’s why I say the best way to get a reporter curious about a document is to label it “Top Secret.”
Perhaps that was my mistake, yet again. You probably won’t hear about it in many places, but this past Sunday I was one of the main organizers of the International Volunteers Workshop: Opportunities to Help North Koreans, co-hosted by the Teach North Korean Refugees Education Center at AOU, Justice for North Korea, and Transitional Justice Working Group. Our goal is to connect English-speaking volunteers with organizations helping North Koreans who have escaped or are still being held hostage in Kim Jong-Il’s country. According to our voluntary registration team, we had almost 200 people from about 40 countries join the event held at Memorial Hall of South Korea’s National Assembly.
A few of the attendees looking around at the diverse crowd trying to do something helpful for North Koreans were openly asking why there wasn’t more media there. After we left, I mentioned to one that it wasn’t too late, one of us, preferably an American, could still return to the National Assembly and steal something, thereby guaranteeing us 72 point headlines in the Korean press for weeks. There would be reunification of the Koreas, in the press, as both sides of the peninsula denounced us.
As if two decades of dealing with media had not already made me cynical, I recently received an email from a reporter who often asks me about stories dealing with North Korea. I mentioned to him that one of the speakers at our upcoming workshop would be Hwang Inchol, the leader of the Association for Family Members of the KAL Kidnapping Victims. The group is pressing for North Korea to return the people on a South Korean airplane (KAL YS-11) hijacked by North Korean agents in 1969. Hwang’s father was on the plane, abducted to North Korea. Even as I was writing the email about the case, I knew it would fail the reporter’s test: “Is it new/news?” Predictably, the reporter wanted to know about a “new” North Korean museum being built somewhere. “New” trumps “important” in journalism.
As I listened to Hwang Inchol, still in pain after 47 years, I became a broken clock, making a note to myself that he wouldn’t get news coverage until he got caught up in a scandal or did something crazy like trying to escape to the DMZ to find his father. It would be pointless, but he might even get as much coverage as the American recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly trying to steal a banner in North Korea.
The writer is director of the Teach North Korean Refugees Education Center at American Orientalism University. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu